Want to Maximize University Tech Transfer? Here’s a Little Advice
Boston University recently announced plans to enhance its technology transfer efforts. I have worked constructively with BU’s Office of Technology Development on a number of start-ups, including Afferent Corporation, a medical device company based in Providence, RI, and applaud the plans for expansion. As BU and other universities ramp up their efforts to commercialize technology, I have a couple suggestions to offer.
First, it is critical for universities to reach out to experienced entrepreneurs, who can act as advisors, teachers, and management leaders in new startups. While novel technology typically serves as the catalyst for a new venture, it is usually not the most important element of the venture (even though founding scientists, like myself, would like to think otherwise). The management team is the most critical element for a new start-up, and we academic scientists typically do not have the skills, experience, time, or focus to serve in such a capacity.
Universities need to find ways to get entrepreneurs involved with their academic communities. This could be through advisory committees, adjunct faculty positions, and entrepreneur-in-residence programs. These interactions would enhance the educational experiences of science, engineering, and business students, and substantially enhance technology-transfer efforts.
Additionally, universities should consider evaluating their IP portfolios as collective opportunities, and not simply as isolated cases arising from faculty laboratories. Too often university start-ups are one-trick ponies based on a new technology coming out of a professor’s lab. Academia encourages research independence, which leads to silos.
Tech transfer offices need to break out of this mold, and consider how different technologies can be combined to create strong, exciting new companies. Professor egos will need to be massaged, and the founding scientists will need to divvy up the founders’ equity, but in many instances these integrated efforts could enhance chances for success.
Along similar lines, universities should look to other universities, and consider creative ways in which their technologies could be combined in start-ups or existing, young companies. We need to establish new mechanisms that can facilitate these types of interactions and relationships.
Jim Collins is a University Professor, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Co-Director of the Center for BioDynamics at Boston University. A 2003 MacArthur fellow, he is a scientific co-founder and chair of the scientific advisory board of both Cellicon Biotechnologies and Afferent.